Fish’s Faves

My friend Betsy McMillan has written an eloquent and inspiring essay on public speaking. She offers excellent advice and demonstrates how it works in print. Kudos, Betsy! Readers of this post can vote for her here.

A quick update: The Enfield library will show “Sicko.” At some point. To be determined. To be balanced with another movie. The council people apparently backed off their threats about cutting the library budget if the movie was shown.

I wrote about good opening sentences not long ago. (“The Lede I”). Now Stanley Fish has written an entire book about sentences —  not just the opening ones, but any that stand out as models of form and content.

Adam Haslett’s essay on Fish’s book illuminates what makes great sentences great. It also confirms that much of brilliant literature requires work not only on the part of the writer but also from the reader. I had to re-read W.G. Sebald’s 101-word sentence twice before I “got it” and even now, I’m not one hundred percent certain. I do not, however, feel motivated to read the entire book, despite Haslett’s encomium.

I’m also not sure that I agree with his view that the rules in The Elements of Style should not apply to modern writers because we are not all male, white, Ivy Leaguers. Before one gets to the level of a Franzen or a David Foster Wallace, one needs to write clear, direct prose.

Slate topped Haslett with the “Brow Beat” I like Fish’s analysis of his five choices: social commentary from John Bunyan, satire from Jonathan Swift, auspicious juxtaposition from Walter Pater and Ford Madox Ford, and loopy energy from Gertrude Stein. My favorite of this batch is Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse.” Short, brutal and to the point.

Brow Beat invited readers to submit their own choices. I’m not going to post on Slate (one more login that I don’t need). But having read over “The Lede I,” I’m going to nominate Jane Austen’s opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” As I mentioned I laughed out loud and thought “Oh, yeah?” the first time I read it, and it still elicits a laugh. More than that, it sets up all sorts of expectations. The world of this novel will be inhabited by people who truly believe this “universal truth,” sort of like the laws of gravity or the molecular structure of water. J.A. has let her readers know that any number of the believers, mostly female, will help this man find a mate. Many of those same females will be nominating themselves for the position. And a great many more will be trying to circumvent the first batch. So that’s Liz’s fave.


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